Will Allen Speech on King Cotton and U.S.Farm Subsidies

World Social Forum
January 2004, Mumbai, India

Uniting Farmers & Consumers Globally to Bring Down King Cotton and Abolish Destructive U.S. Agricultural Subsidies By Will Allen, Organic Consumers Association

Thanks for inviting me to participate on this panel today.

Let me start out by trying to give you some interesting tidbits about the history of farming in the United States of America. I am one of those who still believe that if you don't know history you are doomed to repeat it. My hope is that if people look closely enough at the history of farming in the U.S. they will understand that it will doom them to follow U.S. model.

Let me talk first about slavery and labor abuse in the U.S. From the earliest European occupations of the U.S., the country was a slave state. At first the slaves were European prisoners or debtors and indigenous tribal captives. After most of them were used up, the colonies turned to Africa for slaves. The U.S. remained a legal slave state until 1861 and a de facto slave state in many parts of the country until the late 1960s, less than 40 years ago. Where slavery flourished most was in the cotton growing areas of the South. When slavery was abolished in the South it was replaced by share cropping and more recently by wage slavery.

As cotton spread west to California, Arizona and New Mexico, labor abuse followed. A barely disguised slave labor system was practiced in the west on a series of immigrant populations from China, the Philippines, India, Japan, Mexico and refugees from the U.S. Dustbowl of the 1930s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. A slightly sanitized version of this abusive labor system continues to be practiced today on Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and any other desperate or disenfranchised group of political and social refugees.

Secondly I want to talk a bit about farm land ownership and control in the U.S. In the 1600s the land was stolen from the indigenous tribes and nations that had occupied the Americas for thousands of years. By 1800, the European white population had gained almost total control of the eastern and western parts of the country. At that time about 95% of the population lived on, farmed and owned the land. The large landowners and slaveholders like George Washington controlled most of the farmland, but nearly everybody farmed their own piece of land, even if it was only a few hectares.

By 1850, when the first synthetic chemicals were introduced to U.S. farmers, 85% of the population still farmed. By 1900 only 75% of the population was still rural and only 60% of the population farmed the land. By the 1950s only 45% of the population lived rural and less than 30% farmed. By 2000, less than one percent of the U.S. population still farmed. Today there are less than one million full-time farmers in a population of 295 million. Today, about 50% of all farmland is held by banks, holding companies or chemical corporations and rented out to contract farmers. In 1946 the average cotton farm was 8 hectares. Today the average size is 500 hectares and the largest is 140,000 hectares.

The third thing I want to touch on is the role of the chemical corporations in changing U.S. farming. Pesticides and synthetic chemicals were first sold to U.S. farmers as the scientific solution to cure all the ills of 19th Century farming, including soil erosion, depletion of fertility and labor unrest. The chemical corporations are still selling their deadly and dangerous chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified concoctions as the products of sound science – and as the salvation for modern farmers. Clearly, pesticides and chemical fertilizers did not help solve any of the U.S. farmers' real problems. Instead, the farmers' inability to repay pesticide, fertilizer and mortgage debts caused many farmers to lose their land and transfer almost all of U.S. farmland to the large scale farmers, bankers, insurance corporations, commodity brokers and chemical corporations.

The next thing I want to talk a bit about is the U.S. farm subsidy system. Large-scale U.S. farmers have received a variety of subsidies since the early 1800s. Our current commodity subsidy system began in the 1930s and early 1940s. The goals of the program were three-fold. The first was providing sufficient commodity crops for times of natural emergency or war. This was popular because of shortages during the First World War. The second was keeping farmers on the land in times of economic emergency. This was easily sold to the taxpayers and the farmers as an especially important goal because since 1800, the country had undergone seven economic panics, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the First World War and was in the midst of its deepest economic depression. The third goal of the subsidies, which was tardily articulated and finally enacted in the 1940s, was to support soil conservation programs to rehabilitate damaged farmland. This third goal also had broad popular appeal. Consequently, when this commodity subsidy system was created it had few detractors in the U.S.

Shortly after the subsidy system was enacted, however, the large scale farmers began to manipulate, restrict and ultimately corrupt all of the goals of the subsidy system. The corporate farmers created a variety of schemes, both legal and criminal, to inflate their personal subsidies and inhibit the small-scale farmer from gaining their fair share of subsidy payments.

In the 1970s President Nixon and his agriculture secretary Earl Butz decided to plant as much land as possible in subsidized commodities because they had become paranoid about commodity crop shortages. Their goal was to create a constant supply of surplus commodities and to force all U.S. farmers to get big or get out of farming. They dumped their surplus crops on the world market in aid packages whose ostensible goals were to provide necessary food to hungry countries. Unfortunately, the result has often been a dumping of crops at below market prices in countries which produce the crops being dumped. These practices have destroyed foreign markets and bankrupted foreign farmers.

The result for U.S. farmers, like their foreign brethren, also has been bankruptcy. There were about 3 million full time farmers in the Nixon years, now there are less than a million. But, as the number of farmers went down, the number of subsidy dollars have gone up in the 28 years since Butz and Nixon expanded the acreage and subsidized the excess. Let's look at who gets those subsidies? In the last ten years, only 36% of U.S. farmers got any crop subsidies. 3.6% of the farmers received 71% of all the subsidies. The next 3.6 % of the farmers received 15% of the subsidies. The remaining 14% of the subsidies went to 28.8% of the farmers. 64% of U.S. farmers received no farm subsidies at all.

For U.S. cotton, less than 10% of the farmers received almost 80% of the subsidies from 1995 until 2001. About 2000 cotton farmers received almost 80% of the $10,660,000,000 in subsidies from 1995 to 2001. That means about 8.5 billion dollars went to less than 2000 farmers to grow surplus cotton by using wage slave labor, taxpayer supported water, poisonous chemicals, antibiotics, hormones and genetically manipulated seed. These 2000 factory farmers used about 80% of the chemicals and almost all of the genetically manipulated cotton grown in the U.S. These are the farmers, who in concert with their brokers are dumping surplus poisonous and genetically manipulated cotton on the world market for about half of the cost of production.

We have tried to argue and demonstrate at the highest levels of the U.S. cotton industry that it does not have to be this way. We have met and fought with the Cotton Council, with Cotton Incorporated, with the USDA and the EPA. For a dozen years we demonstrated that small, medium and large-scale farmers can grow high quality, high yield crops of economically profitable cotton without using any chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified products. We argued that they shouldn't be growing crop after crop after crop of cotton on the same piece of ground, sometimes for as long as thirty years. We have argued that taxpayer subsidized monies should be diverted to organic and sustainable cotton farming.

The Cotton Council and Cotton Incorporated, who represent the 2000 richest cotton farmers in the U.S. totally rebuffed all of our requests to fund organic technical and marketing projects with taxpayer monies from the subsidy system. Instead they used our taxpayer money to support genetic modification and an endless series of toxic chemicals.

Since the introduction of genetically modified cotton, pesticide and herbicide use has increased, not decreased. Genetically manipulated cotton crops are showing lower yields and a series of problems from premature boll loss to seed fragmentation upon ginning.

This technology, which promised reduced chemicals, reduced costs, and higher yields has failed to produce. Instead, RoundUp is becoming increasingly resistant. The accelerated use of RoundUp has contaminated rivers and groundwater basins. No one is analyzing the effects of all these toxins on the cotton seed which accounts for at least 60% of the yield and which goes directly into the food supply. In the U.S., 80% of the seed is fed out to dairy cows at the rate of 8 pounds a day.

They sold us an untested technology in arsenic, lead mercury, methyl bromide, DDT, chlordane, 2-4, D and thousands of other poisons. Our lack of knowledgeable resistance to these killers cost us millions of lives and damaged ecosystems. To use all of these metallic and chemical poisons took enormous leaps of faith, for both farmers and consumers. Many of those leaps were forced upon growers by economic imperatives from their banker. Farmers are now being forced into that position about genetically modified crops and animals. This attack is now world wide. It's a ubiquitous attack. Everywhere, farmers are deluged with ads, offers of cheap genetically modified seed, free chemical fertilizers or pesticides, free advice, support for a workshop, a nice dinner, maybe a beer.

The leaps of faith for chemical use were huge jumps for an already fearful population. The leap of faith for genetic manipulation is likewise huge. Farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries knew arsenic, lead and mercury killed. But, they were assured that these poisons could be used safely. That was a lie. But, many farmers wanted to believe the chemical advocates and took the leap. In the 1930s and 1940s the farmers didn't know the dangers of the bromines and chlorines as well as they knew the dangers or arsenic, lead and mercury. Most still took the leap. This leap of faith ended in the deadly sorrow of cancer clusters, toxic groundwater, birth defects, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and the destruction of wildlife. In India, the farmers and citizens leap of faith ended in Bhopal and other chemical disaster sites.

We must prevent our brother and sister farmers from making a disastrous leap into the Pandora's Box of genetically engineered crops. The companies that are encouraging us all to leap into this genetic abyss are the same corporations that gave us the robber barons, the First World War bombs, anti- personnel poisons, the Nazi Chemical concentration camps, and the agent orange in VietNam, Laos and Cambodia. These are war criminals who would be tried and imprisoned if they hadn't developed a million corporate escape hatches. Please don't take any advice that these corporate thieves offer. They want your land. I've watched them confiscate my neighbors, my friends, and my relatives' land.

A key to breaking the chemical and genetically modified stranglehold that these chemical corporations and their supporters hold over both U.S. and international farming is the subsidy system. Large corporate U.S. farms would not be growing surplus cotton and corn without subsidies. These subsidies enable U.S. cotton and corn growers to control market prices because they currently export about 60% of the cotton and corn in the world.

The cotton U.S. subsidy system is under attack from the IMF, the World Bank, conservative think tanks and other unlikely critics. It is also under attack by the G21 nations. We need a concerted attack on the subsidies. But, there are less than a million farmers in the U.S. and only a few thousand who are willing to confront the power of big chemical and big cotton. In order to change these subsidy systems, farmers in the U.S. need help. Almost half of the world's inhabitants are farmers. We need the help of these farmers. We need the help of all the cotton growing countries, all the farming countries, all the sustainable farming NGOs. We are asking sympathetic supporters to help organize, coordinate and participate in an international week of protest against the U.S. Cotton Subsidy program before the U.S. presidential elections in November 2004. We think Mahatma Gandhi's birthday on October 2nd might be an appropriate day to begin this protest.

We are asking all countries in the G21 to refuse to attend any future ministerials or discuss any bilateral trade agreements with the U.S. until cotton subsidy issues are addressed and resolved. We may not be able to change all of the U.S. subsidy system at once, but if we can topple cotton by cutting off billions of dollars in corporate welfare to the 2000 cotton growers who dominate the U.S. industry, we may at least be able to reshape subsidy systems around the world to focus on organic farming, resource conservation, land reform, rural revitalization, and fair trade.

Genetically manipulated crop production in the U.S. is currently dependent on the subsidy system. If we can lop off the subsidies, genetically manipulated crops will be dealt a serious and hopefully fatal blow. While believing that toxic chemicals could save their farms, most U.S. farmers lost their land. By accepting and believing in Frankenstein products farmers could lose their farms, contaminate their soil and damage neighboring crops, land and wildlife.

The leap of faith that we are suggesting here is also difficult, but we feel that it will reap real rewards. Please join us in protesting against these despicable subsidies which turn millions into slaves and paupers and threaten the destruction of agriculture as we know it.

Will Allen
Organic Consumers Association
Mumbai, India
January 2004

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